From Jethro to Jonah to President Donald Trump

Sometimes a Jewish prophet, a Jewish national leader, needs to accept some advice, some admonition, from a non-Jewish outsider to learn how to lead the Jewish nation and how to serve G-d.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Donald Trump
Donald Trump

A few weeks after the Children of Israel left Egypt,  this nation of erstwhile slaves, newly emancipated, as yet without any experience of freedom or responsibility, without the first idea how to govern themselves, rely entirely and solely on Moses to guide them both physically and spiritually.

And Moses – not surprisingly – is about to collapse under the strain (Exodus 18:13-18).

And so Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (Jethro), for whom a entire parashah is named, dispenses some wise paternal advice:

“It is not good, this thing you’re doing. Both you and this nation with you will become completely worn-out because this matter is too hard for you: you won’t be able to do it by yourself. Now hear my voice and I will advise you, and G-d will be with you: You stand opposite G-d for the nation, and you bring the matters to G-d. And you will caution them of the decrees and laws, and instruct them of the way in which they are to go, and the actions that they are to do. And select from the entire nation G-d-fearing men who are capable of leading the masses [1], men of truth who hate illicit gain, and appoint over them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens; they will judge the nation all the time, and everything that’s too big for them, they will bring to you, and everything that’s small, they will judge. It will be easier for you, and they will bear with you. If you do this, and G-d commands you, then you will be able to stand – and this entire nation, too, will come to its place in peace” (Exodus 18:18-23).

Now it seems remarkable that Moses didn’t think of this by himself. Is it really so revolutionary that a leader of an entire nation deals with only the weightiest matters of leadership and judgment, while leaving the smaller day-to-day matters for his appointed lieutenants? That local nation delegates some of his responsibilities to subordinates? That the leader judges, local leaders, adjudicate minor disputes?

Maybe yes. Maybe for Moses, the idea of delegating tasks to honest G-d-fearing men chosen the masses was indeed revolutionary. After all, where did Moses grow up? Where was he educated in government?

In Pharaoh’s palace. In the seat of a tyrannical despot whose word was law, who wielded unchallengeable power of life and death over all his subjects. In a country where the king was an absolute leader, and everyone else obeyed.

Such was Moses’s earliest education of national leadership.

Decades later Moses returned to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh release the Children of Israel from slavery, and thus (at 80 years old!) began – reluctantly – his career as national leader. To initiate his mission, “Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Children of Israel...and the nation believed, and they heard that Hashem remembered the Children of Israel” (Exodus 4:29-31).

Yet immediately afterwards, the Torah records that “Moses and Aaron came, and they said to Pharaoh: Thus said Hashem, G-d of Israel: Send out My nation” (Exodus 5:1).

Moses and Aaron began their mission with the elders of the Children of Israel – yet when they reached Pharaoh’s palace they were alone, just the two of them. What had happened to the elders?

The Midrash answers: “The elders went with them, but they slunk away one by one and two by two; they continued walking, and when they reached Pharaoh’s palace, not a single one was still with them” (Shemot Rabbah 5:14 and Tanhuma, Shemot 24).

Moses’s first practical and personal experience with leadership did not inspire much confidence in other leaders.

For a leader whose formative education in the principles of government was so dictatorial, and whose initial experience with sharing power was such a failure, the very concept of delegating power, of devolving authority from the autocratic leader to the masses, was entirely foreign.

Only a leader with decades of experience could have suggested such a novel idea to Moses – and Jethro, the former Minister of Midian [2] (Exodus 2:16, 3:1, 18:1) was that wise and experienced leader.

The Midrash gives a revealing insight into Jethro’s personality: “Jethro was a priest of idolatry; but he discovered that it was worthless, and became embittered of it…He addressed the people of his town, saying to them: Until now, I have served you. From now on, I am old; choose for yourselves another priest… They arose and ostracized him: no one would henceforth help him in any way, no one would carry out any task for him, no one would tend his flock… This was the reason that he sent forth his daughters” (Shemot Rabbah 1:32).

A picture emerges of a charismatic leader, a maverick, who did what he believed in without fear of the consequences.

And, as an almost-contemporary commentator points out, as a result, G-d rewarded him measure-for-measure: Jethro rejected idolatry, and as a result his descendants became Kohanim (Priests) of the One true G-d (Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d, Peirush HaMaccabee, Exodus 2:16).

Even Moses, the greatest prophet of all time, indeed the spiritual father of all prophets, both those who came before him and those who came after him [3], needed advice in national leadership from a non-Jew and outsider – but one who nonetheless had proven leadership qualities.

And part of the measure of Moses’s greatness was that he knew how to accept advice from an outsider, even from a former idolater.

Before the Exodus, the Torah recounted the final Plague, the Slaying of the Firstborn, followed by the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea in which the Egyptian army was drowned.

What happened to Pharaoh, who was himself a firstborn?

There are several different opinions in the various midrashim, but I cite here just one:

“Then G-d saved [Pharaoh] from among the dead…and G-d raised him up from among the dead in order to tell of His might and power…, and he went and became king over Nineveh…And when G-d sent Jonah to prophecy its destruction, Pharaoh heard and arose from his throne, rent his garments, donned sackcloth and ashes, and proclaimed that his entire nation must fast for three days, and that anyone who would not do all this would be burnt in fire” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 43).

This is intriguing, because Jonah lived and prophesied during the second half of the reign of King Amaziah of Judah (2 Kings 14:23-25), some 670 years or more after the Exodus; so this Midrash imputes to Pharaoh an exceptionally long life-span.

This Midrash connects Pharaoh with Jonah, which leads us to a glaring irony in the story of Jonah.

G-d sent the prophet on a mission to admonish the non-Jews of Nineveh to repent of their evil actions, and in a desperate attempt to evade his mission, he boarded a ship bond for Tarshish. A storm blew up, threatening to smash the ship, whereupon all the sailors – non-Jews, idolaters all – began praying to their various gods.

And where was the Jewish prophet? – Asleep in his bunk, until the captain of the ship shouted at him: “What are you doing sleeping?! Get up and shout to your G-d! – maybe G-d will look after us and we won’t perish!” (Jonah 1:6).

What irony! The recalcitrant Jewish prophet who tried to avoid his mission of bringing idolaters to repentance instead found himself admonished by a non-Jewish idolater to wake up, rouse himself, and pray to G-d!

Sometimes, indeed, a Jewish prophet, a Jewish national leader, needs to accept some advice, some admonition, from a non-Jewish outsider to learn how to lead the Jewish nation and how to serve G-d.

I write these words as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Jewish nation-state, is in Washington, met with President Donald Trump, the leader of the world’s most physically powerful nation.

Trump has something in common with Jethro. He is a maverick, who does what he believes in without fear of the consequences. And like Jethro, his daughter has converted to Judaism and is married to a Jew, living a Jewish life [4].

And I suggest that our own Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has much to learn from President Trump.

Let us recognise that many of Israel’s perennial problems stem from its founding fathers. The modern secular political Zionist movement began in Europe of the late 19th century – primarily Czarist Russia, Poland, the Kaiserreich (the Imperial German Empire), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Israel’s government began as the leadership of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Israel), first as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, later the British Empire – meaning, always under colonial rule.

The immigrant Jewish population of modern Israel were overwhelmingly from eastern European countries and Arab Muslim countries – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and so forth.

This meant that both Israel’s rulers and population were the products of generations – centuries – of persecution and humiliation. It is hardly surprising that even after almost 70 years of independence, we have yet to recover from the after-effects of 2,000 years of exile.

It is little short of miraculous that Israel has nevertheless succeeded in building a fairly free and civilised and self-confident society – certainly light-years ahead of just about every other post-colonialist country in the world.

But we can do far, far better than we have until now.

To start with, after almost 50 years of Israeli rule over an undivided Jerusalem, it is high time that Israel exercise genuine sovereignty over our holiest site in the world – the Temple Mount. It is high time that, after 2,000 years of praying dozens of times every day for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, we begin to build. It is decades beyond high time for Israel to become unashamedly a Jewish state, and to cease fearing the nations that surround us. (What, after all, can they do to us that they haven’t already tried and failed miserably?)

And it is time for us, as a nation, to live freely throughout this Land that G-d has given us – whether in Haifa and Tel Aviv or whether in the holy city of Hevron, or in all the other ancient Jewish cities such as Bethlehem, Shechem, Ofrah, Amonah, and Susiya.

For a nation of newly-liberated slaves, Moses was the appropriate leader: something of an outsider, raised as an Egyptian prince, somewhat aloof.

But 40 years on, the new generation which had grown up free in the desert had to have a different leader: Joshua, one of the people, a man who led as one of the people and not as someone who stood above the masses. This was one of the reasons that Moses could not lead the nation across the River Jordan into Israel. A new generation needed a new leadership.

And so too for Israel today: Israel still retains too many unwelcome remnants of colonial ethos – the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled, the lack of accountability in government, a police and judiciary which see their main task as protecting the government rather than protecting the citizenry, a government whose powers are considerably broader than is appropriate ion a free country, and so forth.

And the generation which has never known exile needs a leadership with greater national pride, a leadership which is genuinely loyal both to its population and to its ancestral homeland. Not a leadership which stand aloof, above the masses.

Now there may be much about President Donald Trump to criticize. But unquestionably he is a very passionate man, a man who has courage and vision, a man who is not afraid to be a maverick, who has no fear of saying what he thinks and believes even when he knows his idea are controversial and unpopular, a man who has genuine national pride and displays it.

Just as Moses, our greatest leader ever and the greatest prophet ever, was able to learn from the outsider Jethro; and just as two-thirds of a millennium later the prophet Jonah was admonished by idolaters to turn to G-d; so too the Prime Minister of the Jewish nation state has much to learn about governing a free country, and even a Jewish country, from the President of the world’s most powerful country.


[1] Following the Ramban’s interpretation of אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל. Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan render “mighty men”; Rashi and Rashbam render “wealthy men”, who therefore have no need to flatter and show favouritism and who do not fear anyone; Ibn Ezra explains “men who have the strength to bear burdens without fearing them”.

[2] The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Jethro, Massechta de-Amalek 1) records two different interpretation of the phrase כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן, Minister of Midian: Rabbi Yehoshua interprets it to mean a minister of religion, hence an idolatrous priest; Rabbi Elaar ha-Moda’i interprets it to mean a government minister. In any event, Jethro was an experienced leader of people.

[3] Several Midrashic and Talmudic sources refer to Moses as “father of the prophets” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1:4, Devarim Rabbah 3:9, Eliyahu Rabbah 14, et al.). The belief that Moses our Master was the [spiritual] father of all the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who succeeded him, is the seventh of the 13 Principles of Faith, which the Rambam enumerates in his Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1.

[4] I do not, of course, presume to know why G-d has allowed Donald Trump to be elevated to the highest office of the world’s foremost superpower. However, I note that Judaism teaches that any legitimate king (by extension, any legitimate national ruler) is granted his position of authority by G-d’s will. This is the reason that when a Jew sees a king (again, by extension, any legitimate national ruler), he pronounces the Blessing: “Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, eternal King, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood” (Berachot 58a; cited as practical halachah by the Rambam in Hilchot Berachot/Laws of Blessings 10:11, by the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim 224:8, and by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 60:10).